Noe Valley Voice February 2003

Ants Invade Noe Valley

By Sharon Gillenwater

If you have been battling ants this winter, you are not alone. Ants have been marching mercilessly through Noe Valley homes for several months.

It all began last November, when a couple of ferocious storms drenched Northern California with more than the usual rainfall. The ants arrived just in time for Thanksgiving, and from all accounts they have stayed well into the new year.

Michele Conway, who lives at Church and 27th streets, has had ants in her bathroom for more than two months. Ant traps alleviated the problem for a couple of weeks, but now she says there are "tons of ants" again.

In December, Kelly Melendez woke up in her Diamond Street home to find ants feasting on a plate of ginger molasses cookies she had made the night before. She also spotted ants in her recycling bag, in the bathroom, and camped in the middle of the living room carpet. "I thought our house was planted on top of an anthill," she says, relieved to hear that others have also been having ant problems.

While Alannah McPherson was away on vacation, ants invaded the kitchen of her second-floor apartment on Hill near Castro. "I've never seen anything like it," she says. "It was like the ant farm moved into my kitchen."

Two boxes of ant traps seemed to vanquish the main army, but several weeks later, McPherson is still finding stragglers. "They're tenacious little monsters," she says.

Noe Valley isn't the only neighborhood crawling with ants. Reports from all over San Francisco indicate that the pesky creatures are popping up everywhere.

According to Corrie Saux, a biologist and ant expert at San Francisco State University, the ants that are invading Bay Area homes are Argentine ants, sometimes referred to as "sweet-eating" ants because they are attracted to sugar and honey.

"When we receive heavy rain, the ants are driven inside when their nests or colonies flood," Saux says.

Regardless of the cause of their arrival, the ants have sent Noe Valley residents scrambling for ammunition. Recent visits to both Walgreen's and Tuggey's Hardware yielded few options, as stocks of ant traps and ant stakes were completely sold out. "This year seems to be particularly bad due to the heavy rains," says Melissa May, manager of the Walgreen's at 24th and Castro. "We haven't been able to keep up with the demand [for ant control supplies]. If we have it, they buy it."

Aside from traps, stakes, and spray, nearly everyone seems to have tried an old folk remedy. Elizabeth Jonckheer's Salvadoran babysitter told her that lines of baby powder at the ants' point of entry would do the trick. "I used to have lines of baby powder all over the house after the rainy season," she says.

Others swear by "Chinese chalk." While this product is supposedly banned for sale in the U.S., it is easily found in Chinatown emporiums. "You draw a line near the ants, and they just drop dead or run out of the house," says 26th Street resident Andrew Keeler. "It's a miracle."

Unfortunately, the active ingredient in most insecticide chalks is a chemical called deltamethrin, which the EPA considers one of the most toxic pesticides of its kind.

Those looking for an affordable, non-toxic alternative might turn to their spice rack (see "Ant Antidotes," this page) or use other strategies to outwit their opponent. One creative Noe Valley homeowner simply followed the ant trail to find the point of entry into her home. Once she found it, she sealed up the tiny hole with a bit of Scotch tape.

"After trying other methods," she says, "this was by far the easiest solution."

According to ant expert Corrie Saux, the only effective way to deal with ant invasions is to discourage them from entering your home in the first place. While exterminators might suggest using pesticides, which will kill the worker ants already in your home, that tactic usually allows the queen and remainder of the colony to persist and reinvade. Besides, insecticides are unhealthy for humans and pets.

Saux suggests you try a non-toxic method such as sprinkling cayenne pepper, to "break" the path of the ants. "Put the pepper anywhere you see the ants entering your home," she says. The pepper sticks to the fine hairs on the ants and is then carried back to the nest. Ants do not like the taste of the pepper and will avoid areas that have it.

"In the end," Saux says, "all you are trying to do is trick the ants into finding somewhere else to forage."